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Earl Russell: My Lords, is it not a common experience that caring for an elderly parent may be a long-term operation but it is not normally a life sentence?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I believe that there is a little more to it than that, but I do not wish to go into the case because it is confidential. However, for whatever reason, the lady lived for 10 years in Belgium. That is a long time by anyone's definition of where one is habitually resident. I do not believe that she could be described as being habitually resident in the United Kingdom.

Perhaps we may take the case of the 63 year-old Scotsman and his German-born wife who have lived in Germany for the past 22 years. They returned on holiday to see the husband's mother and to assess whether to come here to retire. By no stretch of the imagination could they be described as habitually resident in the UK. There is the case of the 22 year-old woman now living in Turkey, having married a Turkish citizen three years ago. She returned to the UK to take advantage of the National Health Service because she was pregnant, and would be returning to Turkey. There is no justification for her asking the British taxpayer to keep her while she is here. A woman aged 17 was given a one-way ticket to the UK by her parents. She was born and brought up in Nigeria, had not worked here and had made no arrangement as to what she would do when she arrived.

A 26 year-old woman lived in Pakistan for the first 11 years of her life and came to the UK for eight years in 1987. She returned to Pakistan to get married, spent one month in the UK in 1992 and returned with two small children in June 1994. She hopes that her husband will be able to join her when he gets a visa. I do not believe that that person can be described by the ordinary use of English words as habitually resident in the United Kingdom.

A woman aged 28 was born in London and taken to Nigeria by her parents when she was eight. She was educated in that country, worked there, was married and came to the UK on 19th August with her eight month-old child. On 23rd August she claimed income support as a lone parent separated from her husband who had remained in Nigeria. There is no way she can be described as being habitually resident in this country.

Those are all UK citizens and the kind of people whom the noble Earl is honest enough to say, having come into the United Kingdom--there is no dispute that they are allowed into the United Kingdom--he would allow them to turn up at the benefits agency and ask, "Please may we have money from the British taxpayers?". They are British citizens who failed the

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test; and of course on the borderline of any test there will be difficult cases. The appeal system exists to try to resolve such cases. Decisions such as that by Commissioner Howell help the adjudicator to decide and the appeal system to resolve the matter.

The fact is that as regards a few people on that borderline who perhaps could argue one way or another, 90 per cent. clearly passed the test and were habitually resident in this country. They are given the benefits that they seek. Only 9 per cent. failed the test. That in no way downgrades British citizenship or is unfair to people who really do have a close link with this country. A few of the examples that I have given suggest that they do not have a close relationship. Of course they can come here and as British citizens they have a right of abode here, but I do not believe that that necessarily gives them the right immediately to be supported by United Kingdom taxpayers.

I have instanced the cases of a few people who were born here perhaps a long time ago, brought up in another country and left the UK many years ago for a new life. For a variety of reasons they wish to return here now. The Government have no objection to them returning; they have every right to do so. However, to suggest that they have an immediate right to social security is quite another step and we believe that a line must be drawn. Of course it is unfortunate that some people decide to return here and are penniless. They should have given that some thought before they left the country in which they lived and in many cases worked, in which they were married and in which they had children. They should not decide, "Well, if we go back to dear old Britain they won't bother. There taxpayers will pay us whatever we are due from the social security system, regardless of whether we have many links of the habitual residence kind with the United Kingdom".

That test is the first test of residence in the income-related benefit schemes for at least 50 years. Of course it was a radical decision to start the test and there have been and are bound to be teething troubles. We recognise that that is the case. We have trained the officials who deal with the cases and we shall gain experience with the passage of time. We recognise that there was not case law which specifically addressed the habitual residence test in relation to income support, although comprehensive guidance was provided. The Social Security Commissioner dealt with the case of a British citizen late last year. Commissioner Howell's decision identifies a number of points which have been in dispute. Some half-a-dozen cases will come before the commissioner in the next few months which will further clarify the interpretation and operation of the test. We recognise that there have been delays in the appeal procedure, but these delays have been reducing and appeals take, on average, 21 weeks to be heard. Obviously, some are heard more quickly than others, but that is no different from United Kingdom citizens totally resident in this country who are also appealing against social security decisions--

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I realise that the Minister has been generous in giving way as often as he has. But how comfortable is he with the fact

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that as regards the appeals ratio the appeals are heavily in favour of those who claim and that a number of those who are winning their appeals are British citizens? What on earth are they supposed to live on during the 21 weeks when the appeal is heard?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have dealt with the question previously as regards asylum seekers. They are in no different a position from United Kingdom citizens who have never been further than this country, have paid their taxes and so forth and have decided to appeal against a decision not to give them benefit. They do not receive benefit while they are appealing. I cannot believe that it would be right to say that people whose residence here is doubtful as regards claiming the benefit ought to be given the benefit while they appeal, while United Kingdom citizens who have stayed here and about whose habitual residence there is no doubt should be denied benefit while they appeal. I find the position that we are taking perfectly and absolutely logical.

If the noble Baroness is suggesting that the party opposite will change that system and allow people to receive benefit while they appeal, that is fine. That is at least one commitment that has not been reviewed and that is definite in the social security system which the party opposite would like to see in place. But I have to tell the noble Baroness that she may find it expensive.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I beg the Minister's pardon. He again referred to "the" party opposite. That is inaccurate.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I apologise again to the noble Earl. I must try to remember that there are two parties opposite. If it in any way helps the noble Earl and defends myself, perhaps I may say that sometimes when I look at his party I see a clearer view of its policy on taxes and spending than I see when I look at the party directly opposite me. It is pretty hedgy about whether it will increase spending. In fact, only the other day Mr. Gordon Brown stated clearly, as seen in a newspaper headline:

    "Labour may freeze public spending at present levels".

Obviously, that includes the saving of £30 million we are making from the habitual residence test. I am not surprised that the noble Baroness is thinking about reviewing the test; that makes no commitment to increase public spending by the £30 million we have saved.

In conclusion, I believe that there was an abuse. There can be no argument about that. There certainly was an abuse of our social security system. We had to act to combat that abuse. Our action had to be within European law. That is why we introduced the habitual residence test. We believed that it was the best solution. It quite clearly enables the great majority of British citizens to continue to receive benefit even when they have been out of the country for a while. We believe that those people who are not habitually resident should not be supported by the British taxpayer. That includes those who are pursuing an appeal.

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In short, we were faced with a problem. It may not have been the biggest problem in social security history but, as I have explained to your Lordships before in that old Scottish phrase, many a mieckle makes a muckle, and £30 million is a fairly substantial "mieckle" (which is a little bit). All those little bits add up to a great deal of money in relation to social security and one must look at them all.

We believed that this was a problem which had to be tackled. We tackled it. Of course, it is always easy to decline to tackle difficult problems and to allow taxpayers' money to be spent even when you feel that there is no justification for it. We have not taken that route. We have tackled that difficult problem. I believe that we have tackled it sensibly and sensitively. As the system evolves and the decisions of the commissioners and so on come clearer into case law, even the CAB may see that the system defends the rights of taxpayers who are also citizens of this country and may also have something to do with the CAB. It defends their position from those people who have no justifiable right to receive benefits from the said British taxpayer.

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